There has never been a Navy basketball player like David Robinson, midshipman third class, 14th company, third battalion, first regiment. At 6'11", he's the tallest ship at Annapolis. The height limit for midshipmen entering the U.S. Naval Academy is 6'6", but 5% of an incoming class can be as tall as 6'8". Robinson entered the Academy in the summer of 1983 at that height and sprouted three more inches in a year. Now the sophomore from Manassas, Va. stands head and shoulders above such Navy heroes as football stars Joe Bellino, class of '61 (5'9"), Roger Staubach, '65 (6'2") and Napoleon McCallum, '85 (6'2"), not to mention cross-country runner Jimmy Carter, '47 (5'9½"), football guard Stansfield Turner, '46 (5'9½"), deep-sea diver Hyman Rickover, '22 (5'6") and, finally, that first of all Navy legends, John Paul Jones (5'5"). "How," asks former NBA player and now Annapolis restaurateur Mike Riordan, "is David ever going to fit into a sub?" Subs may indeed be a problem but Robinson's height will not disqualify him from jobs in intelligence, engineering, supplies or most other naval careers.
The question nobody in Annapolis has to ask is, "How is David fitting into the Academy's basketball program?" With just one year of high school experience, Robinson saw little action as a 6'9" Navy freshman. But after lifting weights and playing in Washington's Urban Coalition League last summer he returned to school 20 pounds heavier at 215, two inches taller and much stronger. At week's end he was among the NCAA Division I leaders in scoring (22.9 points per game), rebounding (10.5), field-goal percentage (65%) and blocked shots (4.5). And Navy was 11-2 and undefeated in the ECAC South Conference. This is the Academy that hasn't had a basketball All-America since Elliott Loughlin in 1933 or an NCAA tournament team since 1960. This year it may have both.
Robinson has created great excitement in 5,000-seat Halsey Field House: plastic-mug and doughnut-hole giveaways, banner and free-throw contests, near-capacity crowds. "Usually everyone leaves the campus on Saturdays," says Nancy Prout, a junior on the women's team "Now when the men's team is at home, we're all in the gym."
"We know we can go as far as David goes." says Navy captain Vernon Butler. In a 74-71 double-overtime win at Lafayette last Thursday, Robinson gave suggestions of how far that, might be. In the first half he sank his only three field-goal attempts-on two feathery, left-handed turnaround jumpers and an alley-oop slam—but missed five consecutive free throws and wasn't particularly aggressive at either end of the floor. Coach Paul Evans sat him down for a minute and told him not to worry about committing fouls. After intermission Robinson hit five more field goals added three in the first overtime and then sank the go-ahead basket in the second despite being double-teamed. For the night he had 27 points, six rebounds and seven blocks. "Overall," he said candidly, "it was a fair performance."
January 28, 1985
"Not many 6'11" centers have his hands, shot touch and ability to run the floor," says Evans, who guided the Middies to their first 20-win season (24-8) last year. 'He can block a shot at one end and dunk at the other. This is only his third full season, so he doesn't have bad habits from the playground. It's like teaching a ninth-grader who wants to learn. David's still learning to be aggressive and go to his right, and we just put in a hook for him last week."
"I didn't think he could shoot well facing the basket, but he did," said Lafayette coach Butch Van Breda Kolff, who has observed a few levels of the game in his time. "But we had guys 6'6" and 6'7" guarding him. Can he make that little shot against big guys?" The answer is yes. Against taller centers from Southern Illinois and Western Illinois in the recent Saluki Shootout, Robinson scored 31 and 37 points, respectively, and was named the tournament's MVP. Said Texas—El Paso assistant coach Tim Floyd, "The guy's potential is unlimited."
And that raises two delicate questions: Will Robinson remain at Annapolis and serve the obligatory five-year Navy hitch after graduating in 1987? Or will he transfer to another Division I school next fall, sit out a season, play two more and then opt for the NBA and its riches in 1988?
"I don't think I'll transfer, but I'm not certain," said Robinson, looking up from the editorial page of USA Today as he rode the team bus from Lafayette back to Annapolis. His size 15, black Navy-issue shoes and blue dress pants stretched far out into the aisle. "I'll have to think about transferring because I might be missing a great opportunity to play pro ball and make a lot of money. Still, I don't see myself as a Patrick Ewing, and if I spent all my time playing basketball, I might not enjoy it. My father says basketball's a transient thing. I feel comfortable at the Academy. When you graduate, you get a good job [$20,000 plus food, housing and travel discounts] and a pension [at half-pay] after 20 years. I like the saying that's in our home-game program: 'Some college students learn what to do from 9 to 5. Midshipmen learn what to do from 22 to 47.' "
The thought of an NBA contract from, say, 22 to 30, hasn't yet swayed either Robinson or his family, which is simply crazy about the Navy. David's sister, Kimberly, a 21-year-old junior at Howard, and his mother, Freda, 46, a nurse, are enthusiastic Navy basketball fans. David's brother, Chuckie, 13, and his father, Ambrose, 42, are that and more. Chuckie, a promising gymnast, is a frequent Navy ball boy and towel bearer who does impromptu backflips at Halsey whenever his brother slam-dunks. Ambrose, himself a 20-year Navy man who was a sonar technician before he mustered out in 1981, attends some 20 Middie games a year and drives 37 miles from Manassas to relatives' homes in Washington to catch the others on radio. Asked if David will leave Annapolis, one Navy officer said, "No way. His father was a senior chief!"
When David was a schoolboy, his father taught him not to put limitations on himself. Taking the advice literally, David read widely, built a six-foot TV projection screen from a kit and played half a dozen sports before making the varsity basketball team at Osbourn Park High as a senior. In spite of his growth spurts, he's so well coordinated he received an A in plebe gymnastics—an astonishing feat for such a big man.
"We didn't push him toward the Academy, but we did guide him," says Ambrose, a cool head with a hearty laugh who still rises before dawn and works as an engineer in Washington. "The biggest advantage is its academic structure and togetherness. It's his decision, but I hope he stays. He's so at home there he forgets to call home here."
Basketball is important to Robinson, but at the moment it isn't his first priority. A math major, he is taking 18 hours of thermodynamics, physics, navigation, computer science and advanced calculus. Last semester he had a 3.22 grade-point average. "Homework?" He laughs. "It varies from too much to way too much. At first, everything seemed unfair: no radio, no TV in the hall, no McDonald's on Tuesday nights. But what you get at the end—the responsibility, the respect, the security—keeps you going. You learn to cope, not complain, and problems don't bother you after a while. I also like the guys here. We wear uniforms and march, but we also party."
Thanks to Robinson, the biggest parties at Annapolis right now are the basketball games at Halsey Field House.